History was made 75 years ago yesterday when President Franklin D. Roosevelt committed the United States to the biggest arms buildup in U.S. history. This came one day less than a month after the Japanese sneak attack on U.S. forces in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The U.S. declared war on Japan immediately after the attack, and on Jan. 6, 1942, Roosevelt announced to Congress that he planned to authorize the biggest arms buildup in U.S. history now that the country had been pulled into another foreign war. And, to everyone's shock, it was only 24 years after the War to End All Wars. Obviously that didn't work so well.
Following WW I, the U.S. military reverted to its peacetime mode, which was a vastly reduced military, many fewer weapons, and lots of other cost-saving functions. After all, if wars had been ended forever, armies and navies would not need to be very large at all.
But Pearl Harbor changed all that complacency. The Japanese navy had done its best to decimate the U.S. Pacific fleet. And although British and French and Italian and Russian leaders had pleaded with President Woodrow Wilson to enter WW I long before America did, he held off until German ships began attacking neutral U.S. ships on the high seas.
But in 1942, Roosevelt listened to the pleadings of European leaders to join them in the war against Germany and Japan, and acted much more quickly than had Wilson.
Particularly vocal in their attempts to get America into the war were Lord William Beaverbrook, the British minister of aircraft production, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They were joined by members of the British Ministry of Supplies. Their arguments worked.
Roosevelt agreed to an American arms buildup and announced to Congress that in the first year American industry would produce 45,000 aircraft, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 antiaircraft guns and eight million tons of new ships of all types.
Most in Congress were stunned at the proposal, but Roosevelt was undeterred in his plans. And not mentioned in his proposal were figures for pilots and crew for the aircraft, crewmen for the tanks, sailors to man the ships, ammunition for all the above, and fuel.
Roosevelt sent a memo to Congress explaining his actions.
“These figures and similar figures for a multitude of other implements of war will give the Japanese and Nazis a little idea of just what they accomplished,” he wrote.
What they accomplished by the sneak attack, that is.
And so 75 years ago yesterday America began its goal of becoming “The Arsenal of Democracy” as an early WW II propaganda and bond drive poster proclaimed. I think I have one of those posters stuck in a box somewhere around here. Might have to dig it out and frame it one day as a reminder about being prepared.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.